Book Bag: ‘Hail and Farewell’ by Abby E. Murray; ‘Stray Bats’ by Margo Lanagan

Published: 11/7/2019 3:30:16 PM

By Steve Pfarrer


By Abby E. Murray

Perugia Press

Abby E. Murray, the current poet laureate of Tacoma, Washington, writes from a unique perspective — that of a pacifist who’s married to a soldier. Her work offers a rich portrait of a woman who is both a loving wife, one who must deal with her husband’s deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and an independent thinker, someone not willing to conform to the expectation that a military spouse express unwavering patriotism.

Murray’s new collection of poetry, “Hail and Farewell,” is this year’s winner of the Perugia Press Prize, the award given each year by Florence-based Perugia Press to a female poet for her first or second collection of poetry. “Hail and Farewell,” published by Perugia Press, was chosen from more than 400 submissions.

The free-verse work in “Hail and Farewell” offers an intimate portrait of the tight bonds between Murray and her husband, even as those bonds are tested by his overseas deployments and the moves the couple must make for his different stateside assignments. The title poem, for instance, references the going-away parties staged for soldiers and families headed to new assignments, and the sense of dislocation they can bring.

“Each time you are issued new orders / your current duty station hosts a Hail and Farewell: / the ceremony during which you receive a plaque / and I am given a rose in a plastic tube…. Last year, / we were hailed in a tavern basement in Scranton / and last night we were farewelled in a brewery ...”

There’s also the matter of Murray dealing with life’s day-to-day irritants — and keeping them in perspective — amid the larger issue of separation from, and fear for, her husband. The poet brings some sardonic humor to “When He Receives Orders to Afghanistan And a Parking Ticket: How to Respond,” coaching herself to be calm, imagining herself as light and airy as a songbird:

“Don’t crack your head / on the window / or rifle through his duffel. / Don’t ask where he parked. // When he hands you the ticket, / its charges printed in dark red / script, let the checkbook fly / from your purse like a finch…. // Don’t bark, don’t pick. / You are not a magpie, / you are not a crow. / Your voice is a long, sweet song.”

Murray also looks back on her family history, and she writes of the joy of becoming a mother, as well as the difficulty of raising her daughter on her own when her husband is gone (“Make daddy dolls / and daddy pillows”). And in poems such as “Lunch at the War College,” she also makes clear that she needs to be her own person and not toe the company line, so to speak, nor embrace war as something inevitable.

“Nice girls don’t ask / if they’re real knives or rubber / when you wrestle your brothers / with blades in a mock battle / while your parents and wives / watch in church clothes. / None of us think / this is what it will look like / the moment our boy is killed.

And there’s this: Murray dedicates her collection to “military spouses who see what happens during and after war, especially those still searching for their way to speak.”

There will be a book launch tonight (Friday. Nov. 8) at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts for “Hail and Farewell.” Abby E. Murray will read from her collection, and she’ll be joined by Valley poet Karen Skolfield, Northampton’s current poet laureate and an army veteran, in a free event at which both poets will explore their military ties.


Words by Margo Lanagan

Illustrations by Kathleen Jennings

Small Beer Press

“Stray Bats,” a new chapbook published by Small Beer Press of Easthampton, is a collaboration between fantasy writer Margo Lanagan and illustrator Kathleen Jennings, both of Australia, and — in a manner of speaking — some 50 Australian poets, whose work inspired the 50 vignettes and short fiction pieces Lanagan wrote for this collection.

They’re colorful and strange portraits of witches, shape-shifting and flying children, a tiny husband who gives his wife tiny children “almost too small to see,” dragons and other oddities. The stories almost read like prose poems: quick, impressionistic sketches of characters and scenes that might be used for a larger piece of writing.

Jennings’ pencil drawings add considerable atmosphere and flavor to these brief tales, like “Dormitory,” in which a boy clings to the ceiling of a room, looking down with a birds-eye view at three figures sleeping below him. The narrator of the story wakes the next morning and wonders if he’s turning avian: “There’s a gruffness when I clear my throat, a chip of cheep-noise in my free-est laugh.”

Local readings: Ocean Vuong, author of the acclaimed 2019 novel and memoir “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” will read from and sign his work Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Fine Arts Center Concert Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Vuong, who lives in Northampton and teaches writing at the university, recently won a MacArthur “Genuis” Grant, and he also won several major awards for his debut poetry collection, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” in 2016. His reading is part of the Visiting Writers Series at UMass, presented by the school’s MFA Program for Poets & Writers.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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